What’s behind the meteoric rise of chief content officers in sport?

Simon Cummins and Julie McKeen from executive search and recruitment firm Odgers Berndtson discuss one of the most in-demand senior leadership roles in sport

Simon Cummins, Odgers Berndtson.

Sports fandom offers a wealth of untapped growth and sports businesses are hiring chief content officers (CCO) to unlock it.

The traditional industry model, predicated on rights-holders working with third-party broadcasters to distribute content, reaches huge numbers of fans but offers little in the way of audience engagement, consumer analytics, or organic, audience-led growth potential. Now, with the widespread adoption of direct-to-consumer (D2C) models, CCOs can drive huge commercial gains by going direct to the customer.

An unmediated relationship between rights-holders and fans enables brands to collect data on interactions, spending behaviours, and preferences. In turn they can target fanbases with relevant products, offers, and monetised content from both the brand and their partners. Importantly, going D2C unlocks data for negotiating higher sponsorship and broadcast deals, creating more user-friendly hospitality, and providing greater access to things like merchandise and ticketing. It creates an ever-increasing pool of accessible data, driving revenue across all metrics, and ultimately leads to that sought after ‘stickiness’ and long-term loyalty.

‘Cutting out the middle man’ has traditionally been a key driver for companies looking to expand their D2C offering, resulting in the subsequent CCO hiring spike. But an even greater demand for direct engagement between fans and the sport is also coming from the fans themselves. A new generation wants behind-the-scenes footage, insights into player personalities, real-time player and team-performance data, and a community to engage with, rather than a transactional relationship with their team. This shift has gained pace over the past decade with fandom being less about the team and more about the players, their personal lives, tips, and endorsements.

We’re seeing this right now with the Netflix-Formula One collaboration, ‘Drive to Survive’, the ‘All or Nothing’ series on Amazon, and creative content like the England and Wales Rugby captains playing each other at darts during the ongoing Six Nations rugby championship. Much of this can be summed by the ‘second screen’ phenomenon – the match taking place on the television while the community engagement, the ‘meta action’, takes place on Twitter through a phone screen. Bridging this gap is the final lever to pull in growing revenues through digital content – and it’s down to the CCO to pull it.

Julie McKeen (Photo: Douglas Kurn).


Who that CCO is, and the types of experience they have, can vary widely. Positioned at the C-level and working in unison with revenue officers, marketers, and sales leaders, the role is still esoteric and, in spite of the title, it’s not just about understanding content.

For a lot of sport, a CCO needs to be in tune with the audience and be capable of building a connection with them that can be monetised, without negatively impacting the relationship.

CCOs also need to have strong influencing and stakeholder management skills. The latter is indispensable in creating fan-to-player connections. Players can be reticent about opening a window into their personal lives and managers and executives can be nervous about cameras giving away performance secrets. Particularly in sport, CCOs need to deftly navigate these concerns while building entertaining content that creates lasting fan engagement and can be effectively monetised.

However, the role can vary significantly depending on the business needs and ambitions. This is why the CCO title can also encompass other roles like fan engagement director, customer growth officer, digital strategy officer, and head of data analytics. Much depends on the output. Are they creating and producing broadcast quality content? Or are they developing new distribution channels for existing content? Do they have major rights ownership issues to navigate as well as team managers? Perhaps the business has already achieved both and what they need now is someone adept in creating packaged services and monetising digital content streams.

Those with less mature D2C channels may just need someone to come in and tell them exactly who their fans are. This would be a data-led position, someone well versed in audience demographics, who understands UX [user experience design] and the customer buying journey, and who brings a digital marketing lens to the role.

Corporate structure also plays a part. If the primary goal for building out a fanbase is fundraising and proving the consumer appetite, the CCO is likely to focus on rapid, low-cost customer acquisition. On the other hand, if there’s an established community which needs to move from ‘occasional’ to ‘habitual’, the CCO will need to look at creating ‘sticky’ content that justifies the value of the sign-up, time and time again to reduce the churn.

Unsurprisingly, a CCO’s background can also vary widely. They can be former news editors, heads of TV production, growth marketers, or audience analytics specialists, from retail and consumer to travel or even finance.

The trick is to establish the short to mid-term business needs and ownership or exit plan before understanding who is right for the role. To determine who that person might be, we work backwards from three years – i.e. looking at what the business would want the CCO to achieve in three years’ time and identify the capabilities and experience to fulfil this. It’s often also necessary to assess the wider skills mix. The CCO might be an exceptional editor, great at developing truly creative content, but do they have someone who understands audience data to effectively sell that content? If not, then also bringing in a senior analyst or data expert may be necessary. Each CCO will have different experience and so challenging them around where they will need functional support is a crucial part of the hiring process.

Whatever the needs of the business, the broader industry trend is clear – content is king and the CCO is wearing the crown.